tonight on "nightline" -- the land of the brave. a memorial day tribute to the men and women who serve. their valor. their heartbreak. we take you inside one battalion in afghanistan. >> keep on firing. >> fighting to complete their mission. >> none of us wanted to come on this op. >> and make it safely home. operation strong eagle. a band of brothers battling unexpected terrain and heavily armed taliban. >> they started freaking out. >> i really felt like i was going to die down there. >> our mike boettcher is the only journalist there as they fought for their lives. and no slack battalion. the incredible story of a fatal engagement in america's longest war in which some got off lucky. others never returned.
a special memorial day edition of "nightline." starts right now. good evening. i'm cynthia mcfadden. on this memorial day, we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and our freedom. here on the home front today, president obama announced he would nominate general martin dempsey to be the new chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. and the president laid a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier at arlington national cemetery. more than 4,400 u.s. soldiers have died in iraq since the war started in 2003. and over 1,500 have died in afghanistan. where our mike boettcher, embedded for a year with the no slack battalion of the 101st airborne.
the men were just weeks from coming home when they found themselves in the battle of their lives. tonight, a report that gives meaning to the idea of uncommon valor. >> reporter: there was nowhere to run. so we dove into a muddy hillside. i ducked in with my camera next to captain ed bankston. headquarters company. no slack battalion. 101st airborne. nine months earlier, he'd been shot in the legs but fought to get back to the front. that's where he was now. out front and exposed. bankston's mission was to hunt and kill the taliban in remote fountain valley near the pakistan border. but the taliban had struck first. they were hunting and killing us. >> i won't forget anything on that day, the rest of my life. i'll question every piece, the rest of my life. >> reporter: the roar of thousands of flying bullets was deafening.
every u.s. position was being attacked at once from all sides. >> [ bleep ] enemy situation right now. they're shooting from a bunch of different places. >> reporter: caftan kevin moss' platoon was penned down 50 yards to the right of us. >> hey, tell them we want a gun run from [ bleep ] running up the spur here. >> reporter: the no slack battalion was assigned perhaps the toughest area of afghanistan. kunar province, known as the heart of darkness. for several months, our cameras were with them as they fought on snow-covered mountaintops and in treacherous mountain valleys. >> he's still too low! >> reporter: they fought hard. and played hard. ♪ >> reporter: this little escapade was orchestrated by one of 3rd platoons most popular leaders. the younger men adored him. the older leaders respected him. everyone thought of him as a soldier's soldier. same with the platoon leader.
captain kevin mott. his boys, 3rd platoon, would walk into fire for him. last june, mott was shot in the head and tumbled hundreds of feet down a mountain. he should have died but recovered. and like bankston, he too fought to return to afghanistan to lead his men. all of them had less than a month before going home. their objective, find a way to get home alive. >> you really have 16 days left? >> yes. >> reporter: but first they had to get through what would be their final battle. >> 3rd platoon, raise your hand as it's called out -- >> reporter: bankston and mott brief their part of "operation strong eagle 3" on a huge battlefield mockup called a sand table. they were a little nervous about it. 400 u.s. soldiers would be airlifted into a remote mountain valley near pakistan that served as the headquarters for a top taliban and al qaeda leader.
>> this is barwalla pale. this is his home. this is his sanctuary. this is his neighborhood. no one's ever dared to go in there. you think it's going to cause a ruckus? i think so too. >> i don't think anybody was necessarily prepared for exactly what it was going to be like. but some of us had, you know, the worst in mind. >> watch this way. >> reporter: at the start of the mission, even the terrain worked against them. >> we weren't expecting that terrain, no. we looked at the imagery and everything before the mission. it did not look that steep. >> reporter: descending into the valley was a nightmare. >> basically, had to hold on to a tree or a root or some type of shrub just to keep, you know, standing up as you go down. >> reporter: and then the rain, sleet and hail came, chasing away the soldiers' main protection, attack helicopters. the taliban's moment had come. [ gunfire ]
>> sounded like the entire valley had erupted in fire. >> reporter: now, bankston, mott and the others were enveloped, like all of us, by enemy gunfire. >> my men were in contact on three different locations. the company commander was in contact. 1st platoon was in contact. >> every position was getting attacked was getting attacked by two or three positions. >> reporter: and then the radio call mott hoped would never come. >> [ bleep ], god damn it! >> what happened? >> three casualties. >> reporter: one of the casualties, the popular sergeant. the stronger the rapids, the more we loved it. took some wild risks when i was young. but i was still taking a risk with my cholesterol. anyone with high cholesterol may be at increased risk of heart attack. diet and exercise weren't enough for me. i stopped kidding myself.
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it's said that when things get ugly in battle, it's not the cause that soldiers fight for, it's each other. the band of brothers. it's something mike boettcher knows well. one of most experienced war correspondents around. we resume now with his coverage of a fearsome fight that is not going well for the americans. [ gunfire ] >> reporter: in the first hours of the operation, the no slack battalion was already taking casualties. among them, sergeant offran arrechaga, a.c. to his men. >> i'll give you more information as we get it. >> the first thing we heard was three casualty. >> as we were running down there, i had no idea how far they were. >> we just took off. >> it just clicked into my head. it was like muscle memory. you just run. you just run to them. >> he said, hey, a.c.'s shot. he's hit in the back. we stopped the bleeding.
>> sizemore ended up trying to put the tourniquet on. i was trying to help him cinch it down. as i was cinching it down, i took two rounds to the chest. kind of caught me off guard. basically, there was a lot of dust and shrapnel from my plate. >> i got shot. >> and i realized a bullet fragment jumped up behind me at the same time i was getting hit in the face and hit me in the back. >> i got shrapnel in the ass. my tang bottle stopped it. >> that's the one that went through the tang bottle. i thought it stopped it but it didn't. >> start engaging with everything we had. it was a rough, rough day that day. >> reporter: fellow soldiers in the nearby farmhouse tried to cover their surrounded buddies with a hail of fire but the taliban kept shooting. >> the rounds were coming straight through the tree. you could not see up the draw from there.
>> went through everybody's mind, you know, this might be the day. this might be the day. >> reporter: with mendez and sizemore with specialist lindskog, the medic, the quiet california boy was on his first combat mission. >> doc, his hands were all bloody because he was treating all different guys. next thing i know, i see him just -- just fall. >> the situation with the medevac is becoming critical. we need a medevac as soon as possible. >> specialist lindskog, if he didn't receive treatment, he wasn't going to make it. >> i need that medevac now. >> they were cut off. they had three casualties. no way of moving those casualties. up to us. >> hey, wait. wait. we're going to move town to that. around these rocks, all right? >> reporter: mott's men tried to get through the taliban's kill zone to reach their buddies. their friends were bleeding to death but more men would die if they pressed further. >> it's like i was telling him for how long long it was, it felt like an hour and a half, it
was probably 45 minutes, i don't know. but telling him, hey, the bird's coming, the bird's coming, just hang in there, the bird's coming. >> one gunshot wound to the neck and one gunshot wound to the leg. >> next thing we see is this big cross coming on a blackhawk. we're like, what are they doing here? pull in. turn sideways. and ding ding ding ding ding, just get lit up. >> the birds came in. multiple -- made multiple attempts. till a bird was, you know, it was damaged so bad it actually had to go and land for immediate maintenance. >> reporter: with the rescue helicopter turned back by taliban fire and his men pinned down, mott could only radio the sergeant leading his squad and tell him to hold out. >> where are you guys? >> we're not going to be able to get over there any time soon. >> you could tell by the voice, as time went on after that, that -- i'm pretty sure he didn't think he was going to make it out of there.
>> reporter: doc and sergeant arrechaga did not make it out. across the valley, another helicopter hovers with one wheel touching the ground near a farmhouse where another one of bankston's platoons is in trouble. another popular platoon sergeant frank adamsky, has been wounded. his follow soldiers exposed themselves to fire as they carry him to the medevac, whose crew risked all to save adamsky. he would later die of his wounds. >> a piece of me falls when you see your men die or you see your men hurt. i can't explain it. just like -- your heart kind of just drops. the only thing i could question myself, which i try not to do, is i could have ran faster, you know? >> immediately, thoughts run through your mind of, could i have done something better? could i have done this to prevent that? >> keep eyes on that [ bleep ]. [ gunfire ]
>> reporter: but there was no time to linger on what might have been. lindskog, arrechaga and adamsky were dead. but the taliban were trying to kill all of them. bankston had had enough. the weather was improving. air support was on its way. he ordered to his fire support officer, known as fizzo. was blunt. >> make [ bleep ] start blowing up. >> it's coming in. >> reporter: apache gunships were the first to arrive. the taliban were close. >> we're pretty sure we had about three or four or five guys within about 100 meters of us. >> reporter: so close, that 2,000 pound bombs were dropped danger close, within 300 yards. >> bombs away, bombs away. >> side of the hill -- there it is. >> i don't think they liked our bombs. >> i don't think they did
either. >> they were pretty upset about this. >> reporter: with cover from the air, bankston's men had a few minutes to rest and reflect. >> everybody talks about the ultimate sacrifice of giving your life for your country. i mean, we're all here. we don't want to. sometimes it happens. >> living the dream. [ bleep ] >> when you go into war, or go into battle with men, they become your brothers. >> there's things that you go through that you won't even go through with your family. >> reporter: brothers search for ways to let off steam. the soldiers mercilessly teased a soldier who was afraid of chickens. others debated what ring of hell they were in. a reference to the classic dante's "inferno." >> talking about the seven layers of hell? >> yeah. >> reporter: another squad of soldiers was in trouble down the mountain. it was time to resume the fight. but not before chaplain justin
roberts, respected for his constant presence on the battlefield where he always carried a camera, sent the men back to war with one final blessing. >> you pray in your faith, i'll pray in mine, okay? heavenly father, guide us. whatever we encounter today, whether it's combat or safe passage, god, let us encounter it with courage. let us encounter it with strength, and lord, make our paths straight. we look to you now. it's in your name that we do pray, amen. >> reporter: with less than a month to go, the no slack battalion is fighting for their lives. knowing that some of their brothers have already given theirs and will not be going home. [ male announcer ] what if that hemorrhoid pain
yet recently, as the fighting in afghanistan intensified, as many as 80% of troops say they've seen a member of their own unit killed or wounded. the stress is enormous. we continue with the story of the brave men of the no slack battalion. >> reporter: on the morning of day one of strong eagle 3, no slack had been knocked on its heels. airlifted into a taliban hornet's nest, six of their buddies lay dead. but in spite of the casualties and also because of them, they press forward. they wanted the deaths to mean something. the planned three-day operation was stretched to six additional days and every day was a fight. >> provide cover fire -- >> reporter: on the ninth and final day, a platoon that calls themselves the bastards poses for a photo.
they were the survivors. three of their number were missing. burgess, feldhouse and faulkner, killed in the first hours of the battle. >> none of us wanted to come out on this op. we knew it was going to be bad because this valley has taken a lot of lives before we got here. >> i heard my buddies, you know, saying that they were hit. >> i really felt like i was going to die down there. >> we all kind of saw it in us to try to be strong, if not for us, at least for the guy beside us. >> we stayed there for all my guys, my squad, my platoon, stayed there for the bastards. >> we lost great soldiers that day, but we still had a mission to do. we're still together. we're still there for each other. i think that's what drove us on. >> reporter: they fought for their fallen buddies, for themselves, for the guys to the left and right of them and for their country. and, now, they are at war with the memories of that day, fighting tears, a battle that young private smith had lost.
for their valor, no slack soldiers were awarded a basket full of silver and bronze stars. general david petraeus himself pinned medals on sizemore, mott, bankston, mendez and a host of other soldiers. awards they would gladly trade for the lives of their brothers. and then they went home. there was no sendoff. no brass band. without a word, they walked to a chartered helicopter and got the hell out of kunar and the heart of darkness. >> mike boettcher reporting. the real story of war. what we ask of those who fight for sxuls what they give. it's been 3,522 days since american troops were sent to afghanistan. thanks for watching abc news. he hope you've had a good memorial day weekend.